October 17, 2007
FRANKLIN BROOKS, JR., APPELLANT,
BOARD OF REVIEW AND SIERRA SALES COMPANY, INC., RESPONDENTS.
On appeal from a Final Decision of the Board of Review, Department of Labor, Docket Nos. 87,984 and 92,684.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 26, 2007
Before Judges Lisa and Lihotz.
These are back-to-back appeals, consolidated for the purpose of this opinion. Franklin Brooks appeals from final decisions of the Board of Review (Board), which affirmed a determination by Appeal Tribunal determinations finding him ineligible for the receipt of unemployment benefits, N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a), and requiring him to refund $5,030 in benefits paid, N.J.S.A. 43:21-16(d)(1). In light of our standard of review, we conclude that the final decisions of the Board were properly premised upon facts in the record and that its determinations were consonant with relevant statutory provisions.
Brooks worked as a salesperson for Sierra Sales Company, Inc. (Sierra). He resigned on June 10, 2005. Brooks stated "there was no room for growth in the company because of the economy, competition, and his inability to receive contracts in a timely manner." These factors impeded his ability to meet higher sales targets and achieve eligibility for sales bonuses. Brooks also cited his health as a basis for his departure. In 2002 and 2003, he had been involved in automobile accidents, for which he was receiving chiropractic treatment for neck and back pain. Sierra had denied Brooks's request to reduce his travel assignment because the request was not supported by medical verification.
On August 7, 2005, Brooks applied for unemployment benefits. A Deputy Director of the Division of Unemployment and Disability Insurance (Deputy) granted the request. Brooks was awarded and collected $5,030 in benefits for the period August 13, 2005 to October 15, 2005. Sierra appealed from the Deputy's decision.
On October 18, 2005, after a hearing, an Appeals Tribunal (Tribunal) reversed the Deputy's decision. The Tribunal determined Brooks voluntarily left his employment "without good cause attributable to the work" and, therefore, was ineligible to receive unemployment benefits. N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a). Additionally, the Tribunal rejected the claimed medical cause as a basis for Brooks's departure because he provided no medical documentation beyond 2003 to justify "good cause attributable to such work."
The Tribunal remanded the issue of whether Brooks was liable to refund the benefits previously paid, to the Division Director. Without further hearing, the Director mailed Brooks a demand to refund the $5,030 previously paid. Brooks appealed. On November 23, 2005, after a telephonic hearing, the Tribunal affirmed the Director's demand for a refund because Brooks had been disqualified for receipt of benefits. N.J.S.A. 43:21-16(d) and N.J.A.C. 12:17-14.2.
Represented by counsel, Brooks filed an appeal to the Board of the Director's demand for reimbursement, and separately filed an appeal from the Tribunal's October 18, 2005 determination that he was ineligible to collect unemployment benefits. On December 9, 2005, the Board dismissed the latter appeal as untimely, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:21-6(b)(1), after noting that Brooks failed to show good cause for the late filing. On March 24, 2006, the Board affirmed the Tribunal's determination requiring Brooks to refund all benefits previously paid. Appeals from these two final decisions of the Board followed.
Brooks maintains that he was not provided with a transcript of the Tribunal's October 11, 2005 hearing, which would support his position that he left his employment for reasons attributable to his work. Also, he argues that Sierra failed to properly pay him for an account he handled. He suggests that the amount of the unemployment benefits "represented far less than [he] could and should have earned" on that account, justifying retention of the benefits paid. Finally, Brooks asserts he collected unemployment benefits "in good faith," making no misrepresentations, thus obviating the requirement for repayment.
The limited nature of our review of administrative decisions is well established. Brady v. Bd. of Review, 152 N.J. 197, 210 (1997). In analyzing the Board's determination, we remain mindful that "[t]he grant of authority to an administrative agency is to be liberally construed to enable the agency to accomplish the Legislature's goals." Gloucester Cty. Welfare Bd. v. N.J. Civil Serv. Comm'n, 93 N.J. 384, 390 (1983). A "strong presumption of reasonableness accompanies an administrative agency's exercise of statutorily-delegated responsibility," ibid., such that we defer to "[t]he agency's [statutory] interpretation . . . provided it is not plainly unreasonable." Merin v. Maglaki, 126 N.J. 430, 437 (1992).
An individual is disqualified to receive unemployment benefits "[f]or the week in which the individual has left work voluntarily without good cause attributable to such work . . . ." N.J.S.A. 43:21-5. We have observed that "[w]hile the statute does not define 'good cause,' our courts have construed the statute to mean 'cause sufficient to justify an employee's voluntarily leaving the ranks of the employed and joining the ranks of the unemployed.'" Domenico v. Bd. of Review, 192 N.J. Super. 284, 287 (App. Div. 1983) (quoting Condo v. Bd. of Review, 158 N.J. Super. 172, 174 (App. Div. 1978)). In defining the circumstances that meet that requirement, we have said:
In scrutinizing an employee's reason for leaving, the test is one of ordinary common sense and prudence. Mere dissatisfaction with working conditions which are not shown to be abnormal or do not affect health, does not constitute good cause for leaving work voluntarily. The decision to leave employment must be compelled by real, substantial and reasonable circumstances not imaginary, trifling and whimsical ones . . . . [I]t is the employee's responsibility to do what is necessary and reasonable in order to remain employed. [Id. at 288 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).]
This test is fact-sensitive requiring the application of "ordinary common sense and prudence." Ibid. As a result, when the agency's findings of fact are challenged on appeal, we will defer to it so long as there is sufficient credible evidence in the record to support its findings.
Once a person has been disqualified to receive unemployment benefits, the statue requires repayment of any benefits received:
When it is determined by a representative or representatives designated by the Director . . . that any person, whether (i) by reason of the nondisclosure or misrepresentation . . . of a material fact . . . . or (ii) for any other reason, has received any sum as benefits . . . while any conditions for the receipt of benefits imposed . . . were not fulfilled in his case, or while otherwise not entitled to receive such sum as benefits, such person . . . shall be liable to repay those benefits in full. [N.J.S.A. 43:21-16(d)(1).]
Here, the determination that Brooks was ineligible for unemployment benefits because he voluntarily left his employment is amply supported by the substantial credible evidence present in the record. "Absent a contractual obligation on the part of the employer with respect to salary increments, . . . an employee's frustration caused by not receiving an expected pay raise does not constitute good cause within the statutory intendment." DeSantis v. Bd. of Review, 149 N.J. Super. 35, 38 (App. Div. 1977). "[M]ere dissatisfaction with working conditions which are not shown to be abnormal or affect health does not constitute good cause for leaving work voluntarily." Zielenski v. Bd. of Review, 85 N.J. Super. 46, 54 (App. Div. 1964).
Moreover, Brooks, who was then represented by counsel, neither filed his appeal request within the statutorily prescribed ten-day period, N.J.S.A. 43:21-6(c), as noticed nor satisfied the good cause exception, which would allow consideration of an untimely submission. N.J.A.C. 12:20-4.1(h)(1) and (2).*fn1 Thus, the Tribunal's determination becomes final. N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a).
We find no connection between the late filed notice of appeal and the unavailability of the transcript from the October 10, 2005 hearing.*fn2 There was no denial of due process.
Finally, there is no relationship between monies Brooks perceives he is owed by Sierra and his eligibility to retain the benefits he was erroneously paid. States are required to recoup funds erroneously distributed in order to receive federal funding. 42 U.S.C.A. § 503(a)(9). This policy protects the public and maintains a fund for those who are adversely affected by unemployment, not those who voluntarily choose to leave the workforce. N.J.S.A. 43:21-16(d) mandates full recoupment of "unemployment benefits received by an individual who, for any reason, regardless of good faith, was not actually entitled to those benefits." Bannan v. Bd. of Review, 299 N.J. Super. 671, 674 (App. Div. 1997). "The public interest clearly is not served when the Unemployment Trust Fund is depleted by the failure to recoup benefits erroneously paid to an unentitled recipient, however blameless he or she may have been." Ibid.
Accordingly, we are required to respect the Board's expertise and defer to its considered determinations. Ibid; Karins v. City of Atlantic City, 152 N.J. 532, 540 (1998).